Friday, April 10, 2015

The Sibling Struggle

"You’re familiar with the command to the ancients, ‘Do not murder.’ I’m telling you that anyone who is so much as angry with a brother or sister is guilty of murder. Carelessly call a brother ‘idiot!’ and you just might find yourself hauled into court. Thoughtlessly yell ‘stupid!’ at a sister and you are on the brink of hellfire. The simple moral fact is that words kill.
"This is how I want you to conduct yourself in these matters. If you enter your place of worship and, about to make an offering, you suddenly remember a grudge a friend has against you, abandon your offering, leave immediately, go to this friend and make things right. Then and only then, come back and work things out with God."
~ Matthew 5:21-24, MSG ~

There was a time in my life when I felt like all I should be wearing was a black-and-white-striped referee shirt.  Even now, if you want me to blow my fuse in short order, let a sibling quarrel ensue.

One of the most frequent questions I am asked by parents raising a child with special needs, chronic illnesses, or disabilities is about the child's "typical" siblings.  There is a tremendous amount of angst and guilt some parents feel about their kids without a diagnosis.  At the same time there are also parents who are frustrated and irritated by the demands and lack of understanding from their unaffected kids.  I intend to encourage both here.

Our eldest daughter was only 3 years old when her brother was born with Severe Hemophilia A.  While the experts tell you that you will have a "honeymoon period" after your child is first diagnosed, we never had one.  Our son's bleeding pattern was extremely active from the day after he was born onward.  We made every effort to explain things to our little girl in an age-appropriate way without scaring her.  Things weren't easy as he was readmitted to the NICU the day after we had been discharged to go home.

While our daughter was tenderhearted with her brother when they were both little, as they grew, she became very jealous of the attention he received.  Although it was not the case, in her mind, I was taking her brother to McDonald's every time he had a visit to the hospital, which was often.  It also didn't help that he was used as part of a new logo roll-out for our regional blood center with his photo image on cards, stationery, and even flags that flew on the main thoroughfare of a large metropolitan city.  Our eldest got to a point where she ranted about the injustice every chance she got to anyone who would listen.

I did all the right things to deal with her bitterness.  I spent dedicated time just with her on fun adventures, connected her with other siblings with similar struggles, and even got her counseling at one point.  None of it seemed to help.  She was angry, and there was no changing that.  I felt guilty, but pressed on, confident that I had done everything I could.

At the same time, my husband would get irritated.  He did what all of the experts tell you NOT to do.  He would wield guilty statements like, "How would YOU like to be jabbed with a needle like that every-other day?"  I would just cringe when something of this kind flew out of his mouth.  Fortunately, our eldest doesn't remember those times.

If this friction wasn't quite enough, our younger daughter was born 2 years after her brother.  It was only a matter of months before her own health issues became apparent.  People were repeatedly dismissive of my concerns with her, thinking I had a heightened sensitivity to special needs because of the ministry.  It turned out I was right.  After years of serial allergic reactions to different drugs, foods, and environmental causes, our youngest was eventually deemed our "Alphabet Soup Kid" with diagnoses of asthma, allergies, severe ADHD, sensory processing issues, social deficits, and a school diagnosis of Asperger's.  Her impulsivity and need for sensory input, touching, hitting, and invading others personal space put our son's anxiety off the charts.  There was a stretch of time where every time my husband and I came home from being away somewhere together, the babysitter would be running down the street after her.  She was ostracized by our neighbors which developed into also being ostracized by her siblings.  At one point in time, my eldest accused me of being a permissive parent because she could not grasp that her younger sister's wild, senseless behaviors had a cause.

My household was UGLY.  The amount of energy I spent trying to explain my children to one another in a calm, tender fashion was exhausting.  I would go through Bible verses on loving one another and kindness to no avail.  I read books to them and taught them about bleeding disorders, autism, and other disabilities.  They had a callousedness towards one another despite the fact that they were exposed to people with special needs and disabilities continually from a very young age.  Every child in my home was screaming "INJUSTICE!" and I seemed powerless to do anything about it.  I couldn't make my children be friends with one another or like one another no matter what correct thing I did next.

While it seemed as if I was doomed to a life of perpetual conflict between my 3 children, light eventually did appear at the end of the tunnel.  I would attribute that light to maturing brains.  

What I eventually began to see is this:  Typical kids who grow up in a home with a sibling who has a diagnosis are asked to have mature thought and behavior in young little minds that aren't capable of fully meeting those demands yet.  Some kids do really well with that, fawning over their challenged brother or disabled sister.  Some kids do not.  Temperament can definitely play into the dynamic.  And there are parental mistakes that can make things worse.  

Yet, even if we don't see a positive outcome in the near term (as in my household), there ARE things we parents can do that improve the sibling tension over time.  Our expectations of the typical children in our household must be reasonable.  Remembering that they are plunged into a situation not of their own choosing, that requires them to grow up a little faster is critical.  We cannot expect our kids to think exactly like we do.  Empathy is another essential tool for us as parents.  We do well to pause and consider how hard it might feel to be the average kid in a not-so-average family.  While we should not overcompensate because we feel badly about having a family member with a diagnosis, we should also be keenly aware that a sibling is likely at some point to see their brother or sister as just a sibling, nothing more, nothing less.

As our eldest daughter marched through her teen years, she became mature enough to begin processing the feelings towards her brother and sister in a very different way.  It eventually made sense to her that there were valid causes of her sister's behavior.  She started being kind to her younger sister, even developing that special sister bond.  It also became obvious to her how much I hated making all of those hospital runs with her brother.  She discovered that she wasn't getting ripped off from McDonald's every time we made the journey.  Now she and her brother share some hobbies, which make for plenty of interesting and entertaining family conversations.  Finally, her own mysterious, teenage-onset arthritis also put her on the track to multiple medical appointments.  This made her appreciate some of the things her siblings both endured for years.  The dynamic really began to shift.

While I would like to tell you that I never have to pull out that imaginary referee shirt these days, our youngest daughter's slowly evolving social skills and intense perseveration still cause plenty of friction between her and her brother.  Fortunately, I am able to take a deep breath with perspective.

If you are facing these same challenges, I want to encourage you that, while it may seem like the sibling jealousy and conflict will never end, there more often than not can be a good outcome.  There IS hope.  Don't give up!  Just keep doing the next right thing in the wisdom and strength of the Lord.  Don't be afraid to bring in professional help when needed.  This is hard work, worthy of all your best effort.

In the end, your children may not be best friends.  They may find they have little in common as they grow.  On the other hand, one may end up gladly being a caregiver for another later in life.  Regardless, they can all live peaceably if you are willing to invest your time, love and dedication throughout the years.

PRAY:  Father God, thank You for the gift of siblings!  Sometimes we face such turmoil as families.  Help us to remember that our brothers and sisters are Your gift to us.  Push back the darkness of jealousy and misunderstanding.  Remind us to support and encourage one another just as You have commanded.

~ Barb Dittrich


We highly recommend the Sibling Support Project for children who are growing up in a home with a sister or brother with a diagnosis.

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